Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing Role Models?

As some of you already know (because I've been geeking out about it for weeks!) I am currently taking a class about the Twilight phenomenon-- "Revamp: Writing and the Twilight Saga," being taught by Carrie Mesrobian at the Loft Literary Center here in Minneapolis. At our second class we talked about the fact that the books' protagonist, Bella, is in many ways a clean slate. She has no friends from her former school, doesn't share her memories of her past much, has no real hobbies, etc. Although this may be the secret of Twilight's success (because Bella's character is left so open-ended, it's easy for the reader to imagine herself in Bella's place and vicariously live the romantic fantasy), it flies in the face of what we usually think of as good character creation, which says that the more specific a character is, the better. As an exercise, we gave Bella a character make-over, each of us brainstorming how we would have made her different. The majority of people in our class wanted Bella to be more active, more opinionated, more secure-- more the confident young woman that we wish the YA readers of Twilight would emulate. This raised an interesting question for me: Do we as writers (and especially those of us who identify as feminist, and especially those of us writing for the supposedly impressionable youth) have any obligation to make our characters role models? And if we do, how do we do that without making our characters boringly perfect? How do we keep them flawed enough to have an arc, to have things to learn during the story? Are flawed characters still good role models? What do you think?


Douglas Hulick said...

I don't know if we have to make our characters "role models", per se, but I think they need to have redeeming qualities. If one of the goals is to have the reader identify with the character, or at least sustain interest in them and their well-being, then the can't make them completely hopeless or worthless, otherwise it makes it too easy for the reader to walk away.

Now, let me pause here to say two things: 1) I am assuming when we say "character", we are talking about the protagonist(s) (although we could also include major secondary characters as well), and 2) I do not write YA, and so in some ways am less concerned about the role model aspect of my protags.

But to get back on track...

As for flaws, those are key, IMO. I mean, it's the imperfections that make most characters interesting. One of the reasons I could never finish Sabatini's "Scaramouche", for example, is that I never felt the protagonist was ever in any real danger of not succeeding. He was too good at everything, and it all came too easily. Clearly, this hasn't been a problem for other people (the book's been in print for almost 90 years), but that only goes to show that one person's positive character trait is another person's back-breaking straw of implausibility. He was, for me, too perfect.

For me, good imperfections in a character add depth and conflict; they cause the character to stumble and fall, but not fatally; and they give the character something to overcome on the way to the final resolution of the book. Not all of them need be overcome, but they should be addressed in some way, even if that means acceptance. Imperfections lead to much better character growth.

And it's for that reason that I think flawed characters/protagonists make much better role models than perfect or near-perfect ones. None of us are perfect, and it's a lot easier to identify with a character who, while they may not share *my* flaws, still have some, than it is to watch some perfect person wander through a book and win in the end. It's by falling and getting back up that we learn our most valuable lessons; we should do no less for our characters.

Sarah said...

My daughter loved *loved* twilight, to the extent of replacing all other conversation with Twilight discussions during a week long canoe trip, but will go on about how much she hates Bella. I think you're right that her blandness makes Twilight almost a premanufactured daydream where Bella is easily replaced by the reader. In that case (just to be a devil's advocate) maybe you are empowering the reader more. They can think "I've got my issues, but I'm cooler than her."